“We’ve had Emile prepare your favorites, darling,” says the mother sitting across the dining table. For someone who’s been reconnected with a child once believed to be lost, she maintains a socially stiff and awkward distance. But these people have grief stapled to their foreheads.
See, people will do almost anything when they lose something like their wallet or phone or child. Sometimes these weakened people are my game. And these people have lost something.
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m a boy in a dress pretending to be a lonely couple’s dead daughter. I found a flier in a grocery store and made a phone call. But now I’m seeing how bad of an idea it is, like going up against soldiers with assault rifles when all I’ve got is a toothbrush. I’ve got one foot in the casket.
I still can’t say anything, knowing the voice I’ve tried to imitate will betray me. There was enough distortion over the phone to hide the lie, but in this mansion I’m too scared to do anything but sit, breathe the sandalwood oil burning somewhere in the house, the smell reminding me of a dirty foot with yellow toenails. A chandelier that looks shined and polished daily rocks against an unfelt wind, seasick shadows shifting the faces that watch me. Classical music rides the air between us.
“Mary, I’m sure this will be a more… enjoyable meal than you had while you were out…there,” says the father. He splits the difference between the woman and me. Closer. His mind’s likely alive with all the degenerate meals I’ve fetched from dumpsters. But favors, sexual or criminal and often the same, take me places. Some days, I eat better than he does.
“Do you like your new dress?” she says, her face a tight fist. Picture her: chamomile dress/suit-thing with frilly doily edges, pearls hugging her neck, suffocated cleavage, hair in a bun headachingly taut, narrow hands strangling a glass of merlot.
I smile, nod. The dress is not made for a boy’s body. The collar strangles me and the sleeves dig into my armpit. The only thing in my favor is that they believe their Mary, having lived on trash, is too malnourished to have breasts. But what happens a year or two from now when little Mary starts her transition from child to young woman? What do I do then? I’m thinking about the flier.
It was in a grocery store too close to Mother of Grace for comfort. But it was also in an area undergoing gentrifications, which meant yuppies, which meant wallets full of cash. I had just taken a pretty thick wallet when I saw the flier. The one with Mary. I was struck hard by the similarities between me and the age-progressed photo. I’m a growth-stunted seventeen-year-old, but I think the malnourishment keeps me looking ten or twelve. The girl in the flier would’ve been eleven. Missing five years.
All I had to do was pretend to be a girl. My hair was already pretty long. I bought a pack of razors and cheap mascara. I didn’t know what else I could do to look like a girl. In the bathroom, I shaved my arms and legs and face. The mascara was hard to put on without looking like a whore, so I went without it. I practiced her voice.
“Mama…mommy…mom…help me…” It didn’t sound right, but I had to try. If it didn’t work, I had enough money to live for a few days. And yuppies were everywhere.
I got the number off the flier, found a payphone, and dialed.
“I see it doesn’t fit. You’ve grown and on such short notice we had to buy off the rack. I had Ivan pick it out at the shops today. He knows you best.”
And there he is again. Ivan. Standing off to the side. An invisible pole rammed straight up his ass. Waiting for these people to bark an order he’ll follow like a good dog. His eyes are trained on me. And those eyes aren’t stiff. They’re Jell-O, slipping all over me. Out there, I’ve seen guys like him. The kind that in the dark part of the alley for me to close the one eye I leave open so he can slide up behind me and whisper shhh, it’ll be over soon. They don’t dress as clean as Ivan.
Double doors swing open and a train of helpers every color except white emerge from the kitchen, each carrying a platter overflowing with meals that seem plastic, molded. Smells invade my nose, awakening my hunger. Savory, dense. My stomach responds. Which is meant to be this child’s favorite? What child eats like this? I reach for some caviar.
“Darling, we mustn’t reach across the table,” she says. “Ivan, would you please.”
Ivan waddles over to the table, caresses my plate in his shriveled hand, and delicately scoops a smattering of each caviar, fans crackers onto my plate, and sets it before me. I never hear the dish clink. Ivan unfolds the swan-shaped napkin and places it in my lap.
“We must not forget our manners, darling.”
“Honey, she’s been away for so long. Maybe we ought to give her a little more time.” The father’s looking at me as if it’s me he’s trying to convince and not his wife.
“Charles, it is our responsibility to return her to what she was.”
I need to start thinking of these people as my parents. A mother and father as strange and unfamiliar as the surface of Venus. I shift in my seat, uncomfortable, my entire weight smashing down on my penis which is tucked back, a small, fleshy pillow giving me a little extra height.
“Darling, you must say something.”
“Honey, we can’t expect her to pretend like everything’s normal.”
“Charles, do not tell a mother how to raise her daughter.”
Through the doorway, in the adjacent room, above the fireplace there’s a portrait of the real one: Mary. Smiling, happy, and loved. But her eyes are lost, a sunset almost dead. Like Ivan’s eyes, they know I’m not the Real One. I can’t look at her anymore. I turn my attention to the window. Outside, spring toils on.
“Can’t we just be thankful she’s here?”
“I’m certain she would like for life to resume as it always had. Isn’t that right, darling?”
They wait, hearts fluttering for me to say something, anything. To be the same little girl she was when she disappeared five years ago.
I clear my throat, Adam’s apple tucked under the high neckline malfunctioning like a broken elevator. My mouth’s crammed with caviar that pops, covers my tongue with gooey saltwater. Nothing I could say seems worth exposing myself. We finish dinner in silence.
I wasn’t like all the other kids at Mother of Grace. I never wanted a family. The forgotten children would all whine about their parentless existence, wallow in loneliness they’d never escape. They’d pray, but I never wasted my time.
At night, I would fluff my bedding, mask my missing body and sneak out the window. The house wasn’t far from the city, so I would spend the night bouncing from coffee shops to a jazz bar that would turn an eye on me sneaking in and stealing drinks from half-empty tumblers. When the sky would fade from black to dirty blue, I would hurry back to the house, maneuvering a catacomb-like maze of back alleys to avoid police or the house mothers on early morning errands.
Eventually, I stopped going back. Took some money from the donation box and split.
People say misery loves company, but I don’t think that’s right. Misery loves convenience. And meeting Stella, running with her like I did…that was convenience.
I met her on my first real day of freedom. In an alley behind a low-rent television studio. There she was, joint between her lips, back against a brick wall covered in a mural of a dozen leather-clad men in orgasmic ecstasy. She dressed like a movie star from the 70s and had black, close-cropped hair. Her face was calm but near-feral, at the peak of a youth spent in bad times.
She said, “You’re too young to be out here.”
“I’m older than I look.”
“You look twelve.”
I was fourteen, but to clarify felt childish, so I shrugged.
She held the cigarette for me to take. I hesitated.
“Take it. It’ll show you who you really are.”
I did and it did. I fell into her as if we were always meant to be together. Not in a sexual way. Not even in a loving way. She would tell me about how she wanted to be, like most girls her age, on television.
“I’ll do anything. Because this life doesn’t mean shit. All that matters is getting what you want. So fuck everything else. Fuck principles. Got that?”
She wanted to be famous, wanted to live at the center of everything, have all the boys put posters on their walls and make the girls jealous. It was a dream so out of touch with her reality that I’d lose a little respect for her each time she brought it up. I never wanted to make a name for myself. I didn’t want to find myself lost in the American Dream.
She’d always clarify, saying, “But I’ll die before I become one of those dolled up whores that walk the red carpet. I wanna be the fucking red carpet.” I didn’t know what she meant by that but I nodded anyway.
That’s how it usually went between us: she would talk and I would listen.
She was the one who told me about the flier trick, said she’d done it a few times.
“There was this one family. They bought me all this shit. See this necklace. Bought me that. I lived in their house for about a month. Got sick of them. Too into God and all that. So I grabbed some diamonds and some cash and beat it.”
She had a sort of magic about her. We’d stop some rich looking guys on the street and she’d cull them in with her voice. They’d give her cash right there. She even got one guy to go to an ATM. I always thought of her as a witch with only one spell.
One night, at an hour reserved for trouble, she stopped a guy walking on rubbery legs. She cast her spell and he fell into it. Their conversation led him into one of our back alleys. Money fell from his hands into hers. But he expected something in return.
“You ain’t gonna give? C’mon baby, I need it.”
She laughed at him. He grabbed her hair. I couldn’t do anything. He was big and I was nothing. But I didn’t have to. Stella brought out a little rusty knife and pushed it into the guy’s gut a few times. He stumbled back, fell into some trash cans, eyes wide, hands grabbing at his stomach.
“You killed me.”
We ran. I don’t know if he died. When we were alone and far from the scene, she turned and pointed at me with the bloody knife.
“We don’t need each other, do we?”
“Do you love me?”
“Yes.” I’m not sure if that was true.
“You can’t love anything in this shit life, okay?”
I never said anything.
That night we slept in the same sleeping bag. She rubbed against me for a while in a way that felt good. At one point she kissed me, but it never went anywhere.
The next morning, she was gone. She left me a twenty and a little bag of pot.
After dinner, we migrate to the living room for some “bonding time around the television.” The mother keeps babbling about a new TV show the same way people babble about a new religion. The kitchen staff works to clean the evidence of out silent dinner. I never hear them.
The den’s got three large loveseats arranged around a television about as big as the dining table. We separate into our individual spaces. The parents don’t sit together. Their missing child has deformed their love into distance. I’m thankful for the distance. Nervousness has worked up some nasty b.o. that only boys have. Ivan bequeaths the remote to the mother in a ceremonial way and disappears into the kitchen.
But I’m not looking at the stupidly big TV. I’m looking at Mary. Her portrait’s hung above the TV, enough in sightline to be always there. Her eyes burning a hole in the dress she should be wearing. I know you, you fucking liar, the eyes says. Somewhere between my ears I can hear her laughing at me. She’s waiting for me to fuck up and fall out of place.
“It’s almost time for the show, darling. Aren’t you excited?”
I nod. I’ve never heard of the show.
The father watches my response, but his eyes are different from Ivan’s and Mary’s. He can’t believe Mary’s here. A man who wakes up in Heaven after spending an eternity in Hell. Our eyes connect and he smiles. If I were someone interested in making others feel good, I’d smile back. Fuck everything. I think that’s Stella’s voice. My face remains blank.
Ivan appears with a bowl of chocolate ice cream. Again, he drapes a napkin over my lap, rests the bowl on my legs, fingers brushing against my dress, feeling the taut, male muscles underneath.
“Miss,” he says with too much steel to be accidental.
As the show fades in, my stomach gurgles, the food inside churning, going sour. The cavernous room shrinks and I feel like I’m on the TV with all the other actors. Trapped in a moment. The show flashes on a woman who looks like Stella, but I know it can’t be her. But even the chance that it could be makes the sourness in my gut burble harder. Mary looks down, stabs my insecurity with her smile. The mother laughs at something on the TV. It’s a weak laugh. The ice cream melts in the bowl. Everything’s fuzzy.
I’m starting to wonder if Ivan slipped some rat poison in my food. He’s smelled a pest and is doing his best to get rid of it. It doesn’t seem like his thing. Still, the sickness lingers.
Before the show’s over, the mother turns to the father and whispers. She looks tired, worn out. He nods, looks at me.
“I’m going to take your mother to bed. You can stay here and finish the show while I–”
“No no, darling. It’s almost past your bedtime. Up to bed. We have a long day tomorrow. You’ve outgrown all your clothes, and we can’t have you running around here in that dress every day.”
The father helps the mother out of the room. Ivan appears, takes the melted ice cream. He waits for me to stand, his eyes unfocused but directed at the space where my penis is swollen from being tucked back all day. I don’t know if he’s doing that for me, or if his eyes went there with Mary. It seems too practiced. I stand and it stays tucked. He takes the bowl and heads nose-first into the kitchen.
When I first arrived, they guided me to Mary’s room, let me take a bath, gave me the dress and all that. So I know where to go, but I wander. I hear the father’s voice, the cough of the mother. It’s a deadly cough–wet and chunky. I ease up to the bedroom door, which is open a crack.
The mother’s already in bed. She’s missing her hair. It’s on a mannequin head next to the bed. The father comes into view, places a rag on her forehead. I hear him.
“She’s home. Rest. Take it easy.”
The mother says, “Tomorrow I’ll take Mary to Bloomingdales.”
“That sounds nice.” He strokes the fuzzy patches where her hair used to be. “What’s the pain at?”
“Mmmm… A seven, maybe eight.”
I think Ugh, cancer. Why does every life have disease in it? It’s all around, so seeing this woman this way doesn’t do anything to me. It’s ordinary and annoying. Predictable.
“Here, take another one.”
He grabs a bottle of pills from the table next to her. When he turns back, his eyes flick to the cracked door and we make eye contact. I turn and hurry off. I go up the stairs two at a time. I’m at the top of the stairs–
“Would you like me to read you a bedtime story?”
The father’s standing at the base of the long, curving stairwell. His eyes beg for the right answer. I shake my head.
“Your mother’s not feeling well tonight. She’ll feel better in the morning.”
We both know that isn’t true.
“You used to like it when I’d read to you. Put you to sleep.” He takes a step, then another. “Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks?”
I stare at him, unable to speak or move, the sickness in my stomach weighing down any chance of expression.
“I understand if you’re not ready. Maybe some other night.”
“Goodnight, Mary. I’m glad you’re here. I love you.” He stays as I disappear down the hall.
In the room I fish out a joint from the jeans I was wearing when they picked me up. Four long pulls and it’s a roach too small to do anything with but flush down the toilet. With a swimming head I slip on the nightie Ivan’s set out and climb into a bed the size of a dead elephant. I try and ignore the fact that the only time anyone’s ever said they love me had nothing to do with me. There’s a picture on the bedside table of Mary. Her smile’s a knife in my high. I put the picture face down. The room goes black as I switch off the little horse lamp on the bedside table. I try to shuffle into sleep, but my mind runs and runs and runs.
After Stella left, I wandered. Stole from department stores and tried to return the items for store credit. Ate a lot of meals out of dumpsters behind five-star restaurants. It was rough but manageable.
Around the time it started to get real cold and Christ decorations popped up almost over night, I was taken in by an older woman who had a thing for young boys. If I had a mother, they might’ve been the same age. She wanted me to call her Missus. She paid me in experience. Took me to French restaurants and bought me expensive clothes–all of which are gone now. Told me about art and made me learn new words every day. Tried to teach me French, but I only remember the phrases I repeated most–tout pour toi and sucer ma bite s’il vous plaît mère. She said she wanted me to be her well-read plaything. She would always give me joints, keep me high so I wouldn’t want to leave. She would make me sleep in her bed and listen as she did things under the sheets.
Things went like this in a mind-blanking kind of way. Meals and moments were interchangeable. Every day a continuous blur of sex and food and sleep. I thought, for a while, that I’d found a place to stay–no matter how fucked up it was to most people.
Then a man appeared one night as Missus cooked dinner. A former husband maybe. Had a big goddamn knife in his hand. What happened next I don’t care to remember. I never saw her again. I walked around for a while with a swollen face and what I’m sure was a broken collarbone. She got it worse. I think the man threw her nipple at me as I ran out of the house. I think her name was Amber.
After that it was the homeless existence that every American thinks is so free and romantic. But really, I became an undesirable that people would rather spit on than help.
I feel weight on the bed. I open my eyes and the only thing that lets me know I’m awake is the razors of light cutting through the blinds. There’s a soft, rhythmic wheezing. A sad sound. I turn on the little horse lamp, sending shadows shrieking away. He’s there, at the foot of the bed, back to me, body shuddering. He’s crying.
The father says, “I know the little girl that left is never coming back.”
First instinct is to run the hell out of the house, barefoot and bareass. But what if he’s faster than me? I can’t see his hands. What if he’s got a knife or a gun? These uptight people put so much away that when they snap, they snap hard.
“She’s dead. But Meredith…she had hope. She wouldn’t give up. She would’ve gone to the grave thinking Mary would come home one day.”
Adrenaline pumps. My chest feels like paper. I could run. This man would probably make up some story, feign ignorance for the sake of his wife, who would fall apart into un-put-togetherable pieces. And then he’d have two losses on his heart. I could run. But I can’t see his hands.
“I know you’re not my daughter.”
His hand wraps around my ankle before I can move. His grip is strong. My stomach grinds, heart burns its clutch.
“I know you’re not Mary, but I don’t care. I…miss her so much that having you here makes it feel somewhat right.” He rubs my leg like fathers do to soothe their child after a bad dream. He turns to me and I can finally see his other hand. He’s holding a checkbook.
“Please, say something.”
“I’ll go,” I say.
“No, I don’t want that. I…want you to stay. Pretend to be my daughter. Meredith won’t last much longer. And then I’m living with two ghosts. I’m too much of a coward to kill myself. I tried, but made myself throw up the pills. Tried with a razor, but I couldn’t even draw blood.”
“I’m a boy.”
“We can take care of that, if you’re willing.” He opens the checkbook, arms himself with a pen. “I can write any number on this check. You name any number and it’s yours. Please…stay.”
I look at the pen shaking in his hand, eager to write a number and pay me to pretend to be his dead daughter. Is that what I am now, something to be bought? Am I nothing more than some thing?
I say a number that seems impossible, tell him it needs to be cash. He pulls out his wallet. He holds out some money. When I don’t take it, he sets it on the bed.
“That’s a start. I’ll get you the rest. Stay here and you’ll have everything you ever need. Be our daughter until she’s gone. And then maybe…you’ll stay with me. This life is better. I can love you, Mary.”
And that’s it. He stands and eases out of the room.
We can take care of that…
I wait until I hear a door close somewhere in the quiet before I grab the cash. Sneaking down the hall, I’m certain Ivan will lurk from the shadows Nosferatu-like and wrap spindly fingers around my neck. But the house remains still.
I debate putting the cash on the table by the front door, but then I think about how it’s a cold night. I hold it tight. I make the mistake of looking back into the den. Mary’s looking at me through the darkness. I want to say fuck you and spit on her picture. I want to sneak into the mother’s room, stuff a few more of those pills down her throat, smother her with a pillow. I want to pour gasoline over all this, including myself, and light one of those long matches, let it burn down until it reaches my fingers and sets me on fire.
The door is there. Everything’s telling me to go. But there’s a voice in the way back of my mind that sounds a lot like me–The Real Me–and it’s saying Stay and burn it. I hear Stella’s voice say Fuck principles. I look at Mary’s picture and I hear silence. I take a step toward the door. The cash whispers Stay. My feet don’t move. I hear the father say I can love you. I reach out, open the door.
“Going somewhere, Miss?”
I don’t turn around, but I don’t have to. I know Ivan is there, standing in the shadows like a candle about to go out. He sees me. Not the little girl, but the dirty young man. I know he’s got a dangerous smirk on his face, one that says We can take care of that if you’re willing.